THAT FIRST CENTURY INTERVENTION
Jay B. Gaskill
In a typical intervention, a man or woman addicted to alcohol, cocaine or narcotics is surrounded by a group of familiar faces — family, friends, and co-workers — and pressured to recognize the addiction and to “get help”. If the intervention works, the addict enters a recovery program and begins the arduous process of liberation from chemical addiction. Those acquainted with the recovery process attest to a feature common to nearly every successful recovery program: In the successful cases, the recovering addict credits a higher power. I have attended many graduations in the recovery community, and I’ve heard that credit given over and over again first hand. The credit is heartfelt and simply expressed, as “I couldn’t have done it without…” The higher authority was almost never linked to a particular theology and often given no name. Many times I’ve seen a simple eloquent gesture, the forefinger pointed skyward, with a grateful smile. It seems that ultimate authority (explicit or implicit) is a powerful element in addiction recovery. And that this element persistently operates whether the program is nominally secular or religious.
With that background, recall the vision of G-d captured in the Torah. In Genesis, G-d is the One who liberates.
For an addict who achieves recovery, the intervention, so strongly resisted at the time, will later be remembered as the first step toward liberation. The threshold recovery from isolation and denial requires a powerful force; addicts cling fiercely to their bondage. Like the point of a fulcrum, an intervention is the focus and point of amplification off all the energies needed to pry a single trapped human being out of the confinement of chemical bondage. Of course, the actual liberation process employs all the practical tools of recovery – counseling, group sessions, monitoring and accountability.
This led me to the insight that there was another kind of intervention, one on a massively larger scale. It took place under Roman rule in Judea during the First Century C.E.
Human civilization has long suffered from its own addictions — to the pursuit of power, to wealth, mean spiritedness, class divisions, and empire. The arrival of a charismatic, messianic Rabbi in First Century Palestine was an intervention, this time directed at the whole human culture. Once this idea occurred to me, I was fascinated at how the little clue the immediate participants had about the length of the time frame involved and how utterly transformative this intervention was to be. They were like unconscious parts of a divine instrument hinged on a great fulcrum, a lever that was to move the very human condition to a new level. The process continues.
Once this notion entered my mind, three other insights spun out in this order:
a. Call & Response.
For years, I’ve been trying to get my mind around the theology and liturgy of Christianity to understand how it connects to the originating narrative of Jesus’ life. Paul took the core message (and some of the worship forms) of the early Judaic congregations who had accepted Jesus as Messiah, and carried it across cultures. In Paul’s singular act of proselytizing universalization, a splinter sect of Judaism became a huge world religion. Yet the story of Jesus’ teachings, execution, and return to humanity as the resurrected Son of God left much to be worked out, as any review of contemporary ethical / moral controversies will illustrate. Many centuries later, other Christians carried their banners in opposition to slavery. We can hardly doubt the moral authenticity of their position. But slavery was an institution whose fundamental legitimacy was not challenged in the 1st century by Jesus or anyone else of note, so deeply interwoven in the culture had it become. New vexing issues arise constantly and developments and innovations in Christian ethical thinking continue to emerge.
Where do all these “innovations” come from? Certainly we can see the developments in Christianity in the centuries that followed Jesus’ ministry as the subtle handiwork of a creator who guides and inspires receptive followers to understand the implications of the original message. How many times have we heard the question, “What would Jesus think?” Yet that analysis seemed vaguely unsatisfactory to me until, a couple of years ago, I was privileged to see concert of “All Rise,” a work by Wynton Marsellis that combines the jazz, gospel and classical music idioms. As part of the concert, a musicologist pointed out that the composer had worked out the problem of integration of jazz improvisation and classical notation by using the “call-response” form so common in the African American Sunday worship experience. The formal, written music for the classical orchestra and chorus was the “call”, and the less structured, more in-the-moment restatement of the theme was the “response.”
I was suddenly struck by a new thought. In Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we have the call, and in the subsequent developments in human culture – still playing themselves out – we have the response.
b. Divine Integration.
I am conventional enough to readily accept the idea that Jesus “incarnated” (i.e., instantiated within the space-time physical limitations of the human life) the essential aspects of the divine nature that we humans needed at the time of the Intervention. But it seems very clear to me that this incarnation of the divine nature was essential, but not total. After all, we don’t read accounts in the Gospels that suggest Jesus was omniscient, for example: because he struggled with the implications of his calling on the desert; he wept when he thought Lazareth had died; and he despaired on the cross as if abandoned. These and other frailties tie us to Jesus as human, and suggest that, through him, the divine nature experiences intimacy with our own suffering and failings. These and other limitations were perhaps a necessary condition of any divine presence in the finite and frail human vessel. [Or perhaps they represented what theologians call kenosis, a divine self limitation or emptying.]
For my part, I tend to see this through a 21st Century lens: as a failure of “bandwidth.” Jesus, born of Mary, ran as much of the divine “program” (the numinous “operating system” of deity’s persona) as could ever run on a 1st Century human “platform.” [Each generation chooses its metaphors. In whatever terms we choose to understand it, the essential divine persona, the very deity-nature was in Jesus, brought to a natural life.]
And I’ve been wondering: Of all the attributes exhibited by Jesus, was there a single core, an essence, a most vital aspect of the divine nature? After reflection, I concluded yes, I do think there is one divine aspect that incarnates the core divine message. And I think it explains both the call and the long, drawn out nature of the human response. The answer is found in the described numinous experiences of all the mystics, who – from all recorded time – have reported contact with the essential unity of all being. Jesus evidenced first-hand knowledge of this unity. I believe the Intervention that began with his life (seen in its totality as call and ongoing response) acted like a divine acid loosed into the world, dissolving all the arbitrary barriers between beings, barriers of wealth, class, gender, power, and circumstance (an ongoing, unfinished process). In this way, Jesus incarnated the divine integration of being and reacted during his ministry to the hypocrisies, inconsistencies, and intolerances of those who failed to see that integration. Surely we are expected to do the same.
c. World Messiah.
For long, dark centuries Jesus’ fellow Jews suffered as an oppressed people, waiting for Emanuel, their liberator, the Messiah. Recall that in Genesis, the divine announcement begins with a reminder – “I am Who led you out of bondage,” i.e., the divine being is identified as Ultimate Liberator. So the hoped for Messiah incarnates the liberating aspect of the divine persona. In the tradition of Jesus’ people (the tradition he and those around him would have taken as a given), the role of supreme liberator has always been at the heart of the divine nature and of their Messianic hopes.
Jesus’ execution and resurrection conferred a universal Messianic power, one that reverberates down all subsequent ages. In various forms it still causes all tyrants to tremble. Jesus’ fellow Jews long suffered under the brutal rule of the “First Reich,” the Roman Empire, a socio-political juggernaut that had developed such overwhelming economic and military power, and effective bureaucratic methods, that it threatened to contain civilization to the very end of time. [Gibbon and other commentators agree that the spread of Christianity set loose cultural forces that took down the Roman Empire more effectively and permanently than any combination of armies. This was no mere side effect.]
The core message of Christianity was a simple, subversive one of unstoppable power. Just as Jesus, the Son, was in one-to-one relationship with Abba, the Father, the only true Lord of Creation, so could be all those who followed Jesus’ example. The resurrection of Jesus’ being to his immediate followers and his “eternalization” as an extension of the deity-persona was the clearest possible sign of the ultimate limitation of power suffered by all morally bankrupt leaders: His relationship with Abba (and the moral authority that flows from the divine-human relationship) could not be severed even by execution. That relationship and authority are available to the lowest among us. No tyranny can withstand a population who finds ultimate moral authority in this way. Jesus’ life, execution and resurrection have loosed a divine acid that dissolves the false authority of all who claim that sheer power makes them legitimate.
A Personal Footnote
If Jesus’ death and resurrection relate to his role as liberator of the oppressed what about the notion that Jesus liberated humanity from sin by dying on a Roman cross? I have several problems with that view:
Nowhere in the Gospel accounts do I find Jesus actually saying to us that his death on a Roman cross was to be a one-time expiation for human sins. Now there are two notions of sin, one which is more problematic than the other. The first, transactional sin, is the human guilt debt from cumulated transgressions of divine moral law, in effect the weight of our sinful acts. But the second, “original” sin, is a sinful state, sometimes traced to the originating sexual act of procreation, or worse still, to the perverse notion that, even at the innocence of babyhood, we humans are inherently wicked.
I must disagree with these descriptions of original sin. I find nothing inherently sinful about procreation. We are inherently like the deity in whose image our consciousness was shaped (i.e., not wicked, not evil). But our divine resemblance is both incomplete and complicated by our freedom to be evil. Therefore I can only understand “original” sin as the inherent and original human condition, that of a conscious being born into space-time, needing but lacking moral knowledge and spiritual development. In this sense, original sin describes our original (but curable) separation from the divine spirit.
I prefer the understanding of Jesus’ life message as an invitation to a moral and spiritual rebirth that cures the condition of original sin and frees us from the weight of transactional sins, without vitiating the obligation to make amends. The essence, if not the impact, of this message would have been the same with or without the Roman execution. Jesus lived that we might learn to overcome sin, but he died so that we might be inspired to overcome evil tyrants, even by laying down our very lives.
The Objective Reality of the Intervention
Call Response, Divine Integration and World Messiah are the mutually coherent aspects of the Jesus Intervention. Because Jesus’ life was historically real and historically transformative, the Jesus Intervention is well beyond the simple myth stories of ancient human provenance.
I by no means suggest here that we can lightly dismiss the formative myths of any authentic religious experience. Many of the myths that stubbornly endure in human history are really archetypal, formative structures of consciousness which have emerged as part of the dialogue between human nature and the divine nature. In this sense, they transcend mere story (in the sense of myths as enduring traditional human tales). Such formative myths represent instantiated metaphors of deep significance, capturing and explaining our understanding of some of the core truths of existence. Even as a formative myth, the Jesus Intervention would be an irreplaceably valuable part of the human wisdom “data base.”
But the Jesus Event was a multi-level, real world occurrence. On one level, it was a major historical transformation: We humans were given a magnificent example of single holy man who lived out (and ultimately universalized) the deep Jewish religious myths about the Son of Man / Messiah. The Event confirmed the moral order as supreme over kings, regents, and the “common” people alike. And the Event so altered the human experience, that social organization, human relationships and the conduct and development vector of civilization were thereafter never again to be seen in the same light. On another level: In Jesus’ ministry, the divine consciousness was displayed as awake (incarnated) in one human consciousness, and through a single holy life, the fact of divine loving attention entered history as an active, palpable, leavening presence. On still another level: The Easter transformation of Jesus mortal life into non-mortal life became the defining Event through which the Ruach, the Holy Spirit (as loving divine attention), became fully accessible to the “common” people. Millions and millions of individuals have been profoundly affected by this ongoing presence. Moreover, the Easter transformation vividly modeled the possibility of individual recovery, renewal, and rebirth. An engine of immense social change had been released into the world.
Copyright ã 2003 by Jay B. Gaskill
Permission to make a small number of copies for use in any study or discussion group is hereby granted provided a courtesy notice is given to the author. The contact for all such notices and for permission to otherwise copy, print or publish this work, is to Jay B. Gaskill, Attorney at Law, e mail: email@example.com